Fidelity—scratch, static, decay
We leave a trace. And then we’re dust.
“Transmissions travel—then they’re not here anymore,” similarly echoes a character in Tom McCarthy’s 2010 novel, simply called, C, about radio from a century ago and bodies that are elementally made of carbon. There’s a strand of tension about real bodies and those that mimic through the guise of technology: a boy’s father experiments with the ghostly, disembodied wireless, all while running a school full of children who cannot hear.
If the ones emitted by the brain are anything like the wireless waves that wend their way around the earth, they’ll leave a trace for a considerable time after their creation. — C, by Tom McCarthy
The novel’s metaphors and deeply spiritual investigations into the corporeal body and the ephemeral medium resonate with four contemporary artists. As if this novel and this author’s imagination could further emanate into sounds and travel and circuits, there’s a comparable correspondence that these four artists are traversing. Their approaches to signals, to the poetics navigating the ether, dilate and swell.
Fidelity threads a tapestry among them.
In transmission, there’s a trust in the body and the voice.
A radio wave never decays; however, its radio towers may tumble.
There’s a kind of infidelity, too, among these artists—of not recording—flouting the urge to document in today’s archive culture. There’s a keen reaching back towards live and lo-fi radio or to shortwave or to performance or to staticky recordings that defies the currency of the everyday ‘museum’ of stuff we call up, virtually, and listen to.
“Ah, but they bounce back eventually …”
In McCarthy’s novel, the boy’s father effuses upon nascent radio waves, pleased to offer ‘evidence’ to their power. “Everything returns just like the interferences on one’s receiver are none other than the echo of Marconi’s first ‘S’ transmitted on Dec. 12, 1901.”
Pulsed further from fiction are the multiple ways interdisciplinary artist Amanda Dawn Christie imagines we can be faithful to the signals from our own bodies and minds—and ghosts in the radio towers. She delves in long-form aesthetic fidelity by planting herself deep into the tendrils of one signal, one infrastructure—and builds anew.
For almost a decade, her subject has been the RCI (Radio Canada International) shortwave transmission site. The towers stood, transmitting for 70 years, until 2014. Christie has composed a requiem for them—for all the beats they once vibrated. Full Quiet Flutter caps the multi-part artistry around the shortwave site in Canada’s eastern Maritime provinces. A cross-hatch of theremin twangs and cow bones morphed into a cello bow intrigue listener and performer.
Radio waves fill the space around us and are passing through our bodies all the time. A curiosity about what is happening in this highly complex and regulated invisible world can bring us awareness of large scale political infrastructures, commercial communications networks, military surveillance systems … — Amanda Dawn Christie [READ MORE]
A collision of bodies and the ethereal voice.
Radio artist Sherre DeLys offers trust in the body and the voice.
If the body fails in some way—as with Helen Keller’s challenges to communicate within a body that neither sees nor hears—a voice bellows forth. Two sides to DeLys’s static-laden ABC-Radio Australia-commissioned work, Fidelity, somehow communicate with one another. Both vantages of this diptych feature archival recordings: on one side is Zulu’s Ball by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band from 1923; on the other is a 1948 Australia radio interview with Keller.
DeLys has constructed a bridge between these with a recording from the 1970s of Clara Rockmore playing Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale on the theremin, an instrument whose warbled sound is achieved without touch, like an electric circuit ghost-firing on its own.
In that moment I recognized that I wanted to make a radio piece that simply set these two recordings—the interview and Clara’s soaring voice-like theremin performance—side-by-side to hear what happens when they speak together. — Sherre DeLys [LISTEN]
As with much of her work, DeLys so often achieves her artistry in collaboration with others. Here, the old disc recording, with its exquisite surface noise, charms us into the mysteries of other kinds of collaborations between touch and voice, of power and the body.
Whose ears navigate a nothingness out of the air?
As with a fidelity to the process of making art of ethereal sounds, there’s a fidelity to idea itself.
Myke Dodge Weiskopf takes his body of work and traces it back to a core set of principles and aesthetics. He’s done this across numerous projects as a radio producer, field recordist, and songwriter/composer. Sometimes it’s a collection of unmodified recordings of shortwave radio stations, containing only time-of-day and standard frequency data as he did in At the Tone. His listening is situated in one place, drawing upon the sounds that arrived to him along the U.S. East Coast from far off—catching sounds as they bounce through the ether to his shortwave radio. At other vantages, he has maneuvered towards the signals themselves—pictured here in Bulgaria—and in Ibiza and United Arab Emirates and other far-flung places.
Fidelity plays out in the blurring of sonic and conceptual mixes. Shortwave itself is likened to a musical chance engine. And now, Weiskopf ‘mixes’ sound and place in the vanishing points of non-urban geographies. The listener experiences odd juxtapositions among his artistic, curated, considered, remixed, spliced, drilled, collaged artistry, such as in the single performative body of ShortWaveMusic «ALL NIGHT FLIGHT».
There is one set of assumptions linked with being a sound-artist listening from one’s home city in what amounts to a sophisticated game of radiophonic chance. There is an entirely different set associated with being a white male jetting into a non-Western country for the sole purpose of bringing home cultural artifacts, however intangible they may be. — Myke Dodge Weiskopf [READ MORE]
“Transmissions travel—then they’re not here anymore.”
Like McCarthy’s novel’s main thread, sound artist-tinkerer Mollye Bendell weaves into her homemade radio antennas a sense of the old Spiritualist movements. Growing alongside the technologies of the late 19th century—calling forth the dead via spirit photography—and shifting into the early 20th century with radio broadcasting and other electromagnetic spectrum discoveries, is a desire to locate signs of an afterlife.
In Whethervanes, Bendell builds magic into radio antennas meant to be touched. Wind plays upon the very finicky little machines to affect their signal pick-up.
After I had built a few, I just started wondering how I could screw them up. In any electronic media, there’s a very fine line between working and not working. But it’s not a binary. There is a space where it’s “kind of working” and I got interested in that liminal space. — Mollye Bendell [READ + LISTEN]
The liminality of the concept played out in the liminality of the mechanics, Bendell suggests. One of those key factors is the weather.
Body and mind and soul, we fall victim to time, place and the wind blowing upon our faces. These four artists collect sounds out of the ether, build them out of nothingness, a fidelity to the thin air itself.
— Joan Schuman, Earlid, winter 2019
Author Tom McCarthy also creates manifestos for the International Necronautical Society, a semi-fictitious network bent on neologistic, mediated interventions (and a real-life, temporary broadcast license on the FM band in London).
The New York Theremin Society promotes instruction and instrument building. Watch a collaborative theremin performance of I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.